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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Herbs

Brilliant Bee Balms

by Holly Shimizu

Looking out my front window, I am struck by the many reasons I love bee balms (Monarda spp.). I can clip young leaves to brew herbal tea, or harvest the flowers to add to a salad.

Butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, and other nectar-seeking creatures covet the tubular flowers on rounded flower heads, which are brilliant additions to late-summer herb gardens and flower borders. Moreover, several varieties with distinctive colors and unique shapes are now more readily available. I've combined several in my own edible landscape border, and the sight is impressive. The more I grow bee balms, the more I discover new virtues of these remarkable plants.

Our ancestors understood that bee balm is both good-looking and good for you. In Colonial times, it was important enough to be planted near front doors, where it was easy to see and easy to harvest. Later settlers used Oswego tea (M. didyma), also called bergamot, in place of true bergamot (a citrus) to make a version of Earl Grey tea.

Knowledge of bee balm's virtues stretches back still further. From Native Americans, early European settlers learned how to treat colds with a tea made of equal amounts of spotted horsemint (M. punctata) and boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). In fact, from 1820 to 1882, spotted horsemint was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the 19th-century equivalent of today's Physician's Desk Reference. Catawba Indians used bee balm tea to treat backaches. Cherokees combined the leaves and flowering tops of wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) and M. didyma to treat colds, stomach complaints, colic and gas, measles, flu, and heart troubles. Many tribes made a poultice of the leaves to treat headaches.

Current research reinforces the traditional wisdom. Dr. James Duke, retired United States Department of Agriculture ethnobotanist, notes that bee balms, like several of their mint family relatives, are rich in antioxidants (nutrients that protect human cells from damage caused by highly reactive and destructive "free radicals") and thymol (a chemical compound used to treat bacteria, fungus, and intestinal worms, and a key ingredient of Listerine mouthwash and similar antiseptic preparations). Duke recommends drinking a cup of bee balm tea each day to ensure a healthful supply of antioxidants.

Make bee balm tea by adding 1/2 cup of fresh (or 1/4 cup of dried) bee balm leaves and flowers to a tea bag or tea ball. Pour in boiling water and allow to steep for 4 to 5 minutes. Flavor to taste with honey.

You can also use leaves and flowers of bee balm to flavor fruit punch. Use the fresh flowers to add color to salads, or use either dried flowers or leaves to flavor turkey, chicken, or pork.

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